Maundy Thursday: April 2, 2015
Exodus 12:1-14 | Psalm 116:1,10-17 | 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 | John 13:1-17,31b-35
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Sometimes sermon-writing can be a painstaking process: first you have to live with the scriptures and see what catches your eye, and then you have to “flesh out” those things that pique your interest, imagining what those listening want and need to hear. It can be quite daunting.
But other times sermons almost write themselves. I will see something, or hear a story, or have an experience, and immediately say, “that’ll preach.”
That was the case when I began to think about this homily. Not long ago, I opened up the New York Times and stumbled across an article that referenced a study from the International Journal of Obesity. It seems that two professors were looking for evidence to support their idea that we eat a lot more now than in years past.
Their method? Well, they looked at 52 paintings of the Last Supper made between the years 1000 and 1800. They examined portion sizes, plate sizes, and even the sizes of loaves of bread, and were easily able to demonstrate that all of these have increased dramatically over the last thousand years.
And the headline on the article? “Super-Sizing the Last Supper.” No question – that’ll preach.
Their primary finding is that food has taken on increasing prominence in our lives over the years. The food on the table before Jesus and the disciples in these paintings becomes more detailed—and bigger—over the centuries. Indeed, these paintings indicate that as time has passed, we in the Western world have become more and more obsessed with food.
But for us gathered here tonight, we know that the Last Supper isn’t really about the food—rather it is about what the food came to signify, beginning that night. It is about the actions of Christ, and the bread of life.
So I wonder: With this understanding in mind, what would it mean for us to super-size the Last Supper in our lives? What do we crave from the menu of that upper room? What we would like to have in extra-large portions?
One thing I think we long for is to have purpose and connection in our lives—to know that we matter in the world, that we have connected with others, that we have made a mark. It can be so easy to only look inward, to never reach outside of ourselves. But Jesus points us to another way.
If the disciples hadn’t yet grasped the message Jesus had for them, that night it must have been made clear. Jesus undertakes the simple act of washing feet. Of course, this is not the work of a master, of a leader; it is the work of a servant.
If we have issues around showing our feet to one another, imagine the way it must have been in those days.
Not only were they perhaps more modest than we (although really, who knows? I wonder if another examination of paintings could answer that question), but of course their feet were much, much dirtier than ours. Dusty roads, open footwear, a walking culture—washing one’s feet was a necessity, to be sure.
But imagine the symbolism of this man—this prophet—this one you have come to know is the son of God—imagine what it means to see him taking off his outer garments, tying a towel around his waist, and kneeling down before you, like a servant, to wash your feet.
Peter objects, as we would: “You will never wash my feet!” he says. But Jesus makes it clear that this must be a community of servants—that all must be in service to one another. Imagine if we were able to embrace that message: imagine a world full of people who have supersized their servanthood.
Jesus understood not only the serenity that comes with a less selfish way of living, but also the power of such communities of caring. His actions challenge us to find the ways to humble ourselves, to tame our own ambition and self-interest, in servanthood, and in love.
“I give you a new commandment,” he says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
I think we also long for community. This supper in the upper room that we recall tonight is certainly a communal event.
But the disciples are not just a group of people gathered by vaguely similar interests or even just chance; rather they have a compelling common mission, to love one another, to embody love. One of the wonderful things I’ve witnessed in this community over the last year and a half is the love we have for one another.
That love is a big part of our mission, I believe: We are a family, brought together to embody God’s love for one another, to wrap each other in the arms of love, the arms of Christ.
But of course, we know it is not enough to only love those who come within these walls; we are called to take that love into the world, to proclaim that message of love.
One way that we can supersize the gifts that were revealed on that night in the upper room is to take this simple message into our own worlds, into the places where we live, and work, and play. To dare to proclaim God’s love for everyone.
On the desk in my office I keep a little book titled, A Shy Person’s Guide to the Practice of Evangelism. On the third page it reminds us that, “Evangelism really isn’t about telling people what they ought to believe. Evangelism is the sharing of a precious gift. Evangelism begins in relationship with the God who lives and cares for all. It bears fruit in lives lived for others.” Amen! That sounds like a really good summary of our common mission—a mission worthy of enlarging and embracing in our lives.
Finally, I think we all long for approval—for assurance that we are worthy of God’s love and care. And certainly the actions of this Last Supper are all about that. Each time we come to this table, we re-enact the ritual that Jesus introduced that night: taking the simple, common staples of bread and wine and transforming them into the life-giving elements of Christ’s body and blood. These gifts remind us again and again that we are beloved of God; that God gave us the unfathomable and outrageous gift of becoming incarnate here on earth, and then dying as we die, to give us the gift of eternal life.
These creatures of bread and wine are the incarnation of God’s love for us—they embody God’s grace, God’s love for each and every one of us, just as we are.
Let me say that again: God loves each of us, just as we are. If he could love that ragtag bunch of disciples that were around the table that night, with all the foibles and misgivings that we read about in the gospel, we know that we too are worthy of that love and acceptance. If only we could always remember that; if only we could supersize the realization that we are made in the image of God, and that we are God’s beloved, no matter how unworthy we may feel.
So that’s my prayer for us: as we recall the events of that night over 2,000 years ago, I pray that we will remember the love that God has for each of us. I pray that we, the lavishly beloved people of God, embraced by this community of caring, will really take in that love; and that then, using it as fuel, we will live into our servanthood, emulating Christ and serving him up to our broken world.
Together, let’s supersize God’s embrace. Amen.